Town mouse and country mouse

April 06, 1997|By Elise Armacost

MY DAY-CARE provider, a former Baltimore County police officer who lives in a Reisterstown townhouse, has never been to Oriole Park, the City Life Museum or the Pratt. Nor has she any wish to go. She doesn't like the Inner Harbor or the National Aquarium. Too crowded. Once in a while she'll take the kids to the zoo. Otherwise, the mere mention of Baltimore makes her face screw up as if she just smelled something nasty.

The town postmistress says she visits Baltimore twice a year. She likes the city -- grew up there, in fact -- and would go more often. ''But I can never find anybody to go with me.''

Last year we wanted to take my father-in-law, a man whose idea of nirvana is 16 ounces of red meat and a potato, to the Ruth's Chris Steak House for his birthday. He refused to go. Apparently he has made a personal resolution never to drive into the city again. We ended up at some ribs joint in an Ellicott City strip center.

Downtown -- on the 23rd floor of the Legg Mason building where, beneath us, the the city looks alive and beautiful in the quivering excitement of Opening Day -- I tell some of these stories to lifelong Baltimorean Gil Sandler. Mr. Sandler is a jaunty 74, with a penchant for bow ties and a passion for cities, especially his own. His ''Baltimore Glimpses'' column appears monthly on this page.

He finds it incomprehensible that there are people living 20 minutes away who choose never to come here. Standing next to him, in front of a huge glass window in the offices of the Abell Foundation where he works, one must share his disbelief. Ships are moving in and out of port; daffodils flutter in raised beds along Light and Pratt.

''One year,'' Mr. Sandler recalls, ''my parents tried to send me to camp up in the Catoctin Mountains. The second day I said, 'I am going home. I can't stand these mountains.' When people talk about staring out the window in the country and looking at the leaves change I don't know what they're talking about. I draw strength from concrete. Is that possible?''

Gil Sandler can no more conceive of living in Severna Park or Monkton than in Death Valley. He doesn't understand their assets, any more than my father-in-law appreciates the architecture on Charles Street. Subdivisions, old towns, horse country, waterfront neighborhoods -- it's all pretty much the same to him, devoid of personality, diversity, excitement.

''Once I sat in Towson in front of the courthouse. I may as well have been in Sweden!'' he says with a roguish twinkle. He hasn't been to Anne Arundel County in 10 years. ''And I hope it's another 10.'' He balks good-naturedly when friends suggest dinner at one of the good county restaurants. Too far. ''We've got better places to eat right here.''

He introduces me by saying, ''She writes editorials about the counties. Can you imagine? Why would The Sun have such a beat?''

I think he's kidding; I also think he feels a little sorry for me. He simply cannot understand why, even if people had to leave because of the schools, even if they prefer picket fences and stomping through autumn leaves, they aren't drawn back to Baltimore again and again for art, culture, shopping. The idea that we need town centers in the counties drives him crazy. ''This is the town center,'' he says.

Once it was. Thirty-five years ago people who didn't live in the city were nonetheless tethered to it. The odds were you worked in Baltimore because that's where the big firms and industries were. Important shopping was done downtown. A night out meant dinner in Little Italy.

But Baltimore no longer is the point toward which all roads lead. Devoted city supporters like Mr. Sandler do not want to face that, but it's true. More and more, county residents do not have to go to Baltimore for anything. That's not all bad; it makes sense for people to be able to shop, work and play near their homes.

But the more unfamiliar the city becomes, the less inclined people are to take advantage of its uniquely urban charms. City driving makes them nervous; they don't know how to use mass transit, don't know what to say to street people asking for a dollar or two. The appeal of a symphony concert is not enough to make them endure such hassles.

I think Mr. Sandler is right. Countians don't realize how they cheat themselves of the good things Baltimore still offers. At the same time, life beyond the city line is not as uniform, bleak or unimportant as city-centric folk imagine. The misconceptions and misunderstandings cut both ways.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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